“Sawdust Swindle” One Dollar Currency

Today, the one dollar currency note tells the story of the “sawdust swindle.”

On March 2, 1889, Congress passed “An act to punish dealers and pretended dealers in counterfeit money and other fraudulent devices for using the United States mails.”

This act specifically mentioned “any scheme or artifice to obtain money by or through correspondence, by what is commonly called the ‘sawdust swindle,’ or ‘counterfeit money fraud,’ or by dealing or pretending to deal in what is commonly called ‘green articles,’ ‘green coin,’ ‘bills,’ ‘paper goods,’ ‘spurious Treasury notes,’ ‘United States goods,’ ‘green cigars,’ or any other names or terms…”

In the Memoirs of the United States Secret Service, published in 1872, George Pickering Burnham described the “sawdust swindle.”


The ” Sawdust Game ” is played by only two parties ; to wit, sharp knaves and dull fools. Yet the temptations put forth by the former prove (once, at least,) too great for the virtue or innocence of many of the latter. To show up this colossal swindle, we deem it a matter of real public good; as exhibiting not only the natural gullibility of a large portion of our people and their natural eagerness to make money,” regardless of consequences,” but also as a means of exposing one of the great mysteries of life in Metropolitan cities; and also to show that dishonest persons, (grasping at this shadow of a “golden opportunity” presented to them, whereby they may swindle their neighbors) are morally certain to come to grief, in the very midst of the swindle, and thus got “hoisted with their own petard.”

It is much easier to overreach a certain class of the community prone to indulge in “great expectations,” as well as would-be rogues, than it is to cheat honest but sharp men, ordinarily. There is an incentive in the hearts of the former that more readily leads them to be gulled — as the chances go. For, though

“Great rogues find little rogues, To worry and to fight ’em, And little rogues find lesser rogues, And so — ad infinitum — ”

still the bigger scoundrels find new rogues of great or less degree, continuously, in this tempting game we are now describing; and as fast as one district is used up, fresh fields are sought out, and the Sawdust Swindle is practiced to fresh advantage by the skillful “managers,” until they find themselves compelled again to change front and base, and go into newer fields, where this “little game” is unknown. We will do our humble part towards explaining this wicked imposition; and thus offer wholesome warning to the uninitiated, who may chance to read these “memoirs.” The modus operandi of the Sawdust Swindle is briefly as follows : —

A nominal firm establish their head-quarters in New York city, for example. They procure city and town directories from all quarters, wherein they find and select the address of certain people to whom they cause to be sent a “confidential Circular,” in which they promise to furnish to each person so addressed “any quantity of United States paper money — National Bank Notes, Currency, or Scrip — of any desired denomination, as good to all appearance as the genuine, and printed from the real plates missed at the U. S. Treasury Department, at the low figure of 25 cents for every dollar ordered. The bills cannot be distinguished from the original,” they assert, and the gentleman whom they write to “is one of only a very few who have been selected in his city (or town) to whom they will offer this grand opportunity to make a fortune, if he is prompt and ready to accept this rare chance.” They do not ask the full pay till the goods are received, but the parties who order must “send, say 10 per cent, of the amount of purchase by mail, and the 15 per cent, balance, may be paid to the Express Co., ‘C. O. D.,’ when the parcel reaches him.” The larger the amounts ordered, the greater the discount.

This is what the firm who sign this tempting circular (or letter) promise to do. And, in thousands of instances, this bait is nibbled at, at once, by the careless, easy-conscienced, or reckless poor mechanic, who is willing to “take the chances,” and make a few hundred dollars thus readily and secretly, without regard to principle, or probable consequences in the premises.

Thus the New York manipulators of this huge swindle receive pecks of orders, and hundreds or thousands of dollars, daily, by mail! And they send to their quietly disposed but grasping customers the package “C. O. D.,” for the balance due on shipments. The victim gets at the Express office (or receives at his address) a small neat box, about 6 by 16 inches in dimensions, upon which he pays the expressman the balance due, say $15 to $150, in good money, as the case may require, and finds the parcel to be a box, iron-bound at both ends, which of course it is impossible to open, on the spot, to examine—even if he dared to expose its contents (which he doesn’t) for he knows it contains counterfeit or bogus U. S. money. And so he very slyly slips away with his prize to the sanctity of his own private apartment, in store or dwelling-house, where he proceeds to open the casket that encloses his little future fortune, or, at the least, its nucleus! He does not always realize that in all this trickery he is particeps criminis in this criminal game. But he has put his twenty-five or two hundred and fifty good dollars into this “speculation,” and now he is bound to see what the promised one hundred or one thousand dollars’ worth of U. S. “bank-bills as good as the genuine” look like. And the dupe is not a little astonished, as well as chagrined, to find that his little iron-bound box contains not a dollar of counterfeit or any other money, but is simply filled with dry sawdust, or kindling-wood, nicely packed therein.


Mr. Burnham went on to explain how the dupe spent more money and time in his efforts to make the swindlers pay his money back. Usually, though, the swindlers either used a bogus address or had already moved on to their next target area.

As a reminder, the one dollar currency note shows against a box with wood shavings and sawdust.

One dollar currency note